One of the most contentious issues this election season concerns immigration. In economic terms (I will discuss related cultural issues below) the debate is framed as a conflict between “protectionism” and “free trade,” or between domestic jobs and international commerce. In either form, the argument seems to be that we must choose between exerting greater government control over our borders or allowing free markets to rule. Thus stated, the essential disagreement chiefly concerns the economic costs and benefits of each policy. But is this really the choice presented in the immigration debate? Or is it more true to say that mass immigration itself entails significant changes in domestic laws and procedures that actually undermine free markets to the short term advantage of a few, large businesses? More broadly, does mass immigration actually entail more governmental control over our lives, rather than less?
Particularly since the burst of the housing bubble and the subsequent economic debacle under President Obama, there has been rising opposition to corporate internationalism. Ignored by both parties until the rise of Donald Trump, this opposition often is portrayed as a kind of reprise of old-style unionism. On this view, lazy, overpaid workers are demanding that their dying industries be propped up through various forms of government protection at the expense of consumers and, in the end, the economy as a whole. Doubtless there is some truth to this charge; immigration control can (though it need not) be part of a wider program aimed at shoring up overregulated industries and closing off American markets.
But what exactly is the alternative being presented—and practiced? The label preferred by proponents of today’s internationalism is simply “free trade.” It has been pointed out for decades that complex agreements like the foundational North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) do not qualify as “free” trade. These are highly detailed government-to-government deals specifying particular corporate and regulatory conduct. In effect, these agreements trade-in the blunt instruments of massive tariffs for a bureaucratic regime that smooths the way for large actors and leaves much room for manipulation and cheating. The “free” part of corporate internationalism, where the United States is concerned, has to do more with the influx of immigrants than any unregulated exchange of goods and services.
The argument for massive immigration is simple: we need more workers in the United States to do jobs American’s will not do. Otherwise, the argument goes, prices will skyrocket for everything from fresh produce to manufactured goods. The logic seems irrefutable: a greater supply of labor means lower prices for labor, reducing the costs and prices of finished goods. And the usual response to this argument—that lower wages spell less money for people to use in buying goods, thereby depressing commerce—has been used time and again as a mere excuse for massive, inefficient, industry- and economy-destroying government intervention.
The problem with the “free trade in labor” argument is that it assumes a free market where it does not and cannot exist. Unless we are to simply open our borders to anyone who chooses to enter (all too close to current reality) the government will be involved in immigration. Current H-1B and other “high-tech” visa programs expose the corruption at the heart of corporate internationalism. Computer and software giants secure government waivers, then lay off engineers and other skilled employees, replacing them with imported workers who only get to stay in the United Sates if they accept low wages in areas with high costs of living without complaint. Other large corporations (e.g., Disney) also sign on to this brand of corporate welfare, effectively undercutting competitors who lack the bureaucratic muscle to replace their own workers. As with most government-controlled markets, then, worker visa programs favor the already rich and well-connected over the newer businesses that historically create more jobs.
Still, most Americans worry less about high-tech visas than about the current, massive influx of illegal immigrants. Many businesses continue to fight against serious enforcement of immigration laws out of concern over the availability of low priced labor. “Comprehensive” immigration reform such as that promoted by Obama and Senator Marco Rubio would regularize the status of many illegal immigrants in order to maintain the availability of this labor. Again, the argument is that prices would skyrocket without such labor and that those arguing against it are blind to economic reality. In this case, we are told, there literally are not enough Americans willing to take the jobs on offer because of the low pay and difficult working conditions, meaning that produce would rot in the fields and shops close (or not open) were it not for large-scale immigration.
In effect, we are told, too many Americans are allowing their racial and cultural prejudices to blind them to their own self-interest. Were the United States to stem the tide of immigration, the result would be massive economic dislocation to the detriment of everyone, whereas more regularized immigration will allow for economic growth. The question is whether this charge is true or, rather, whether mass immigration itself imposes severe costs (of various kinds) on American workers, consumers, taxpayers, and citizens.
It would be easy to focus on incidents of criminality by illegal immigrants or on the statistics regarding educational and skill levels among those who enter the country illegally. But these hot-button issues in a sense are beside the point—or rather, they are mere indicators of a broader, deeper dilemma. In addition to problems related to lax enforcement of rules regarding illegal immigration (which could bar criminals and allow for adjustments regarding the educational level of those granted entry) proponents of mass immigration overlook the effects of the simple scale of immigration on preexisting communities and the basic infrastructure of a free society and free economy.
At the heart of mass immigration ideology is the fantasy that people are essentially interchangeable. The all-too-common claim that opponents of mass immigration are mere bigots itself shows a form of bigotry, namely the refusal to recognize or value the customs, traditions, and habitual practices of immigrants—or, indeed, of Americans. The assumption is that all good Americans have one thing in common: the desire to work hard and get ahead. Those who lack this value are lazy and deserve to be replaced in the labor market, while those who have this value are thereby automatically qualified to be immediate full-fledged Americans, whatever their background and experience.
Americans’ view of their country as a land of opportunity has deep roots and continues to have much to recommend it. But the notion that ambition alone is sufficient to benefit immigrants and the local economy is worse than idealistic; it is myopic, insulting, and the source of massive, expensive dislocations in our communities. And these dislocations have costs that undermine our economy, the possibility of free markets, and the rule of law itself.
The cultural differences immigrants bring with them are not mere ephemera to be tossed off on arrival. People’s cultures have both stability and value. To ask that they be discarded is to demand the impossible. To ask that Americans instantly incorporate newcomers is to demand something equally impossible. In both cases the end result is confusion, conflict, and even violence.
The current upsurge in crime on America’s streets, and especially of attacks on the police, provides ample evidence of the need for trust in any functioning society. Only if the people have a basic level of faith that the authorities will apply the laws with minimal fairness can the police maintain order without violence. Regimes lacking such trust cannot be free; they will devolve into either anarchy or despotism. But trust requires a basic commonality of values. That commonality is breaking down in the United States thanks to decades of radical ideological indoctrination, particularly in our school system. As a result, entire areas of our cities have come to resemble the wastelands of premodern regimes, in which bandits roamed, enforcing a minimal, often brutal order. Within our own borders, among natural-born citizens, a culture has grown up, fostered by a hostile, race-based ideology, that rejects our society and those who seek to uphold and enforce its standards. The result is chaos that undermines commerce and destroys lives.
This cultural breakdown is made worse by our massive influx of unassimilated immigrants. None of this is to say that the cultures to which these immigrants belong are necessarily evil or even “wrong.” But it is to recognize and respect the fact that culture matters. Historically, Americans have had a particular culture, devoted to vocation (work), nuclear (as opposed to extended) families, and a valuation of home and education as the goods worthy of the greatest expenditures. In these we are different from many of our European counterparts, most of whom spend more on entertainment than home improvement and value leisure more highly than Americans. We also differ from various groups from less developed nations, where, for example, extended families are the norm.
It is not necessarily the case that Americans are “right” in making these choices, or even that all Americans make them. My wife’s extended Hispanic family meshes rather well with the culture around it, at the same time that the increasingly prevalent habit of divorce in mainstream society is eating away at the cultural capital even of small towns. But to pretend that basic cultural traditions do not exist or are unimportant is to treat people as less than fully human. And to ignore the costs of dealing with cultural differences, and with the myriad other manners and habits formed in different cultures, is foolish, given their impact on our increasingly regulated society.
It may be that many of the rules we follow relating to home occupancy, access to public services, and family relations are overly intrusive. Many appear to be part of an overgrown regulatory state. But we should not ignore the fact that costs are involved. When the Irish, then later Germans and Italians, immigrated to the United States in large numbers the result was a set of very real problems of dislocation and even violence. Churches and other associations softened the impact in a nation not yet enmeshed in a social democratic welfare and administrative state, but the dislocations were undeniable. Today, on the other hand, people expect a level of public services that already cannot be provided—the utter failure of Obamacare to provide decent, affordable healthcare is just one indicator, here.
When too large a number of unassimilated immigrants enter an area, the unspoken understandings that allow people to navigate commercial and social relations break down. This may involve something as fundamental as child marriage or something as seemingly inconsequential as respecting a line waiting for service. A relatively small number of newcomers who genuinely want to be a part of a host society will look to these rules and seek to follow them. Adjustments will sometimes need to be made and decent character among the majority group will dictate explanations, sympathy, and forgiveness for unintentional slights and violations. But once the numbers reach a certain point, and certainly when the newcomers are taught that they should not be expected to assimilate, civility breaks down. And when this happens custom and manners—the softer rules that make social life possible in a free society—also break down. Law and order become scarce and possible only when the strong arm of the law is present, either directly or via threat represented, for example, by surveillance cameras and warning signs.
Differing modes of life and trade are expensive to navigate in a regulated society. Mass immigration makes the costs and problems of such navigation far worse than they otherwise would be. And it requires an increase in police presence and legalization of social relations that is both expensive and intrusive. One answer to this dilemma would be a less regulated society providing fewer public welfare services. That said, there is no substitute for the ongoing power and influence of a dominant culture and for upholding it by limiting immigration to levels allowing for relatively swift assimilation. Sadly, the deepest problem with our immigration policies seems to be that they are based on contempt for, or at least willful ignorance of, the value of our culture and the necessity of a mainstream culture to any functioning society. Not even contracts will hold a society together if we do not share assumptions regarding what is of value, what it means to be true to one’s word, and what actions are called for in cases of breach. To think that the more complicated dealings of social life can do without common assumptions is dangerously foolish.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.